Rating: 4 stars
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Length: Novella

Amur leopard shifter Jihu Warren was imprisoned by the leader of his lepe, forced into Chung Hee’s rigidly controlled breeding program by the use of drugs and beatings. But even in his cell, Jihu heard of his half brother’s Bai’s freedom and escape from the lepe life that is all Jihu has known. And that fact gave Jihu hope. When Chul, father of Bai and Jihu, comes to the compound and confronts Chung Hee, a fight breaks out that allows Jihu to escape with the help of another half brother. With only an address and dilapidated vehicle, Jihu takes off, intent on finding Bai and a safe place to hide.

Gilbert Trujillo is puppy sitting for his brother, Isaac and his mate, Bai, while they are conducting animal rescue from the Colorado wildfires. Home from a run to the store, he finds a strange truck in the garage and a very frightened Jihu hiding in the house. Gilbert realizes immediately that Jihu is his mate but Jihu’s senses are impaired, a result of the injections he received at the compound. Not only can Jihu not smell that Gilbert is his mate, but he is unable to shift, causing physical pain and leaving him unable to tell who to trust. Gilbert must win Jihu’s confidence and trust, and quickly. Because Jihu has brought with him something that will change everyone’s lives around them and Chung Kee is intent on capturing Jihu and returning him and his package to the compound. Together the men and the family will have to band together to fight against an insane man bent on continuing his rule.

Gilbert is the fifth in the Leopard’s Spots series by Bailey Bradford and it deepens the mystery concerning shifters being drugged, incarcerated, and experimented upon that started with Timothy (Leopard’s Spots #3). We met lepe lord Chung Hee in Isaiah’s book, but the true measure of his rigid rule is made apparent here, very similar to North Korea’s Kim Jong il. Under the guise of furthering the Amur leopard’s population growth, Chung Hee has kept his people confined to a rigid lifestyle in which men and women are used as breeders only with no affection shown to each other or to the babies who are quickly removed from mothers who never wanted them to begin with. Kept in fear and ignorance, those who rebel are imprisoned and experimented on with drugs, to what end is never made clear. But Bradford is clearly setting the stages for momentus events coming in future books. I anticipate the answer will find us returning to the Himalayas and the Russian Far East, the Amur leopards original territory. I love where this series is going and continue to be frustrated by the book length, here still only a novella. This has all the aspects of a rich plot and I would love to see it given the space and attention it deserves.

Once again this brings me back to the number of pages spent on sexual activity. In Isaiah’s book, it balanced out with the plot. Here not so much. We tip the scales back to so many sexual descriptions of Jihu and Gilbert’s mating that the increasingly complicated plot and wonderful characters are almost lost among it. Why the author continues to do this when she has so much to offer in characters and storyline baffles me. I can only hope that as the series moves forward, she finds a balance between the two that both promotes the bonding she obviously feels is necessary to the story and the story itself.

The reason for the higher rating is that the characters are wonderful to go with a rich plot. Jihu captures our sympathy from the start. He is a young man desperate to escape from the compound he has lived in his entire life, the lepe run much like the cults that end up in the news today, its members so brainwashed that to live otherwise is almost unthinkable. The reason he is so determined to escape is one of the book’s great joys, a spoiler I won’t giveaway here. Gilbert Trujillo is another remarkable member of his family, fully realized as a kind and gentle person, awkward outside his family, he finds his strength in coming to Jihu’s rescue and the events that follow. I loved Gilbert almost as much as Isaiah who is back along with his mate Bai Allen Warren and other Trujillo family members from previous books.

Gilbert ends with much up in the air, family members are harmed and we are not assured of their status, the villains point the way to a deeper conspiracy, and Esau, the subject of the next book, is missing. With a lesser author, I might have abandoned this series long ago, but there are so many strengths here, from plot to characterizations, that I gobble up each story as soon as they come out. Do I get frustrated by the same quibbles over and over, yes. But the pull to find out what happens next overpowers whatever faults I find in the writing. So it’s on to Esau (Leopard’s Spots #6) coming out in October. I will be first in line to get it.

Cover by Posh Gosh is gorgeous, the models are perfect for Jihu and Gilbert, the leopards stunning. what more could you want.